Disclaimer: Don’t own ‘em or profit off ‘em. I didn’t create the Old West – Little Britches AU, either.

Warnings: It’s LB so I can pretty much guarantee at least a little smarm. This is my first attempt at the OW LB, so bear with me.

Chris Larabee gazed across to where the two little boys he had taken into his home scurried around the yard. The excitement they had shown since breakfast was still evident, the normal toil of daily life on a ranch forgotten before the promise of the afternoon.

Buck Wilmington, his friend and partner, both on the ranch and in raising the two boys, was due to come home today. The big brunet had been gone for nearly a week, on an assignment for Judge Travis. A telegram delivered the day before yesterday told them that he’d delivered the satchel of documents necessary to settle a land dispute that the Judge was presiding over. He was on his way home, and expected to arrive back at the ranch late this afternoon.

Chris had watched the two boys brighten at the news and had decided to give them a treat. If they could get their chores done early enough, they’d ride out to meet the returning man. Larabee figured they could stop at Willow Creek, giving the boys a little time to go fishing while they waited for the other man to ride by. They could have a picnic there as a way to welcome Buck back before returning to the ranch.

Smiling, he shook his head as he watched the boys. He had sent them to weed the little garden behind the house, while he finished taking care of the stock and readying the horses for the trip. JD, not one to stay focused on a job for long, was intently watching something in the grass rather than helping pull the weeds. Vin, always more serious minded than his cousin, was scolding the younger boy.

Leading the two saddle horses and the pack horse, already loaded down with more than enough to make Buck’s homecoming fun, he split the air with a sharp whistle. Both children turned toward him with chagrinned expressions on their faces. Trying hard to hide his smile, he said, “You boys finished?”

Blue eyes snapping, young Tanner growled, “No, we still got some t’ do, ‘cause he ain’t workin’!” He flashed a frustrated glare toward the younger boy.

Jumping to his feet, five-year-old Dunne snapped back, “I’s catchin’ bugs so they don’t eat the beg’ables!”

Chocking back a laugh, the rancher pretended to study the child’s claim. Scratching his chin, he said thoughtfully, “Catching bugs, huh?”

“Uh-huh,” The tiny boy agreed adamantly. Thick, black hair bobbed furiously as he shook his head yes.

With a sly wink at the older boy and grinning as he simply rolled his eyes in response, the tall man squatted down to look into the guileless hazel eyes. “Well, that is an important job. But so is weeding the garden like you were told. So, I’ll tell you what. Next time, you help Vin weed, and then he can help you catch the bugs. Deal?”

The child’s enthusiasm faded a little as he nodded once more. “’Kay, I’ll do better next time, Chris.”

Finally allowing his smile to show, the tall blond said, “Well, all right then, I’ll tell you what. We’ll go ahead and meet Buck.” He paused as both boys expressed their joy with squeals of happiness. When they quieted, he continued. “But tomorrow, JD, you’re going to finish the weeding, while Vin catches bugs.”

Sighing, the tiny brunet looked as if he would argue the point. One firm glance from the man before him kept his mouth closed, however. He simply nodded in agreement.

Behind the other child, Vin grinned at his guardian.


They rode out a short time later, the two boys sharing the saddle atop Peso while Chris rode beside them on Pony. Larabee listened while JD chattered on and on about anything and everything. The older boy was perched in front of his cousin, holding the reins and responding from time to time with one word answers. The little brunet hardly seemed to notice the lack of other voices in the conversation. He simply rattled on cheerfully. Young Tanner looked over at the rancher, heaved a sigh and shook his head.

Barely able to keep a straight face, the gunman-turned-rancher called out, “JD?”

Stopping in mid-sentence to look at the tall man with a shocked expression, young Dunne answered quietly, “Yes, sir?”

“Would you like to play a game?”

Grinning now, the little orphan chirped, “sure!”

“Okay here are the rules. You have to be very, very quiet and see how many different sounds you can hear. You have to be real quiet and listen, so no talking. Then when I call time, you have to tell me how many different sounds you heard. All right?”

The cherubic little face screwed up in a frown as the boy studied the long series of instructions. Finally, his face brightened and he bobbed his head up and down excitedly in agreement.

With an indulgent smile and a wink toward the silently giggling little Texan, Chris nodded. “Good. Okay then, ready? Set? Go!”

Silence filled the air for the next ten minutes, giving the laconic blonds a brief respite.


They reached Willow Creek just before noon. The trio rode towards a stand of trees that had given the creek its name. It was close enough to the road that they could watch for Wilmington’s arrival, but far enough away to keep them from being bothered by passersby. Not that there was much of a chance that would happen. The road they were on saw very little travel.

Chris dismounted then lifted the boys from Peso’s back. “Okay, you two go see what you can find to make a cook fire, while I take care of the horses. And, JD? No bug hunts until your work is finished.”

Twin replies of “yes, sir!” rang out as the little cousin hurried off. Behind them, Larabee allowed himself a moment to watch the two boys before turning to the task at hand. Unbeknownst to the tall blond, a wasp had chosen that moment to dodge into Peso’s ear, striking the soft flesh inside.

Startled, the big black responded to the pain with a squeal and a hard toss of his big head. His actions caught the man unaware, banging into the man’s head. Already seeing stars, he was thrown against the trunk of a large tree, his head taking a second blow and his shoulder impacting with the hard surface as well. With a surprised grunt of pain, the blond’s eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the ground.

Several feet away, the two boys heard the commotion and hurried over. While Pony and the packhorse stood nervously pawing the ground, Peso was a retreating blur on the horizon.

“Peso!” The older boy cried out, “Peso, git back here!”

“V… Vin?”

The little blond turned quickly at the weak call. He recognized Larabee’s voice, but it sounded so strange. When he saw the big man, he cried out again. “Chris!”

The injured man was struggling to rise, but waves of dizziness and nausea made the task impossible. He slumped back to the ground with a moan. “Vin… s’wrong?”

Young Tanner could only stare at the man. His face was covered with blood, more of the bright crimson fluid oozing from a cut on the side of his head. All of the color had drained from his face otherwise, his features the color of clay. Most frightening of all was the vague, slurred speech and the fact that the man couldn’t seem to sit up.

A whimper nearby drew Vin’s attention. He looked to see his smaller cousin standing beside him. JD was shaking and crying, both pudgy hands covering his face. Reaching out, he pinched the little brunet. “Stop it!”

“Ow! That hurted!” The distraught child cried out.

“Quit bein’ a baby!” The older boy scolded.

“S’wrong?” Larabee asked again, once more struggling to rise. “Vin… wh-what’s wrong with… Adam? S’ all… all… I… oh…” He collapsed back on the ground once more, glassy, hazel eyes drifting shut.

Adam? Vin tried to understand what was going on. Why had Chris asked him what was wrong with Adam? Adam was –

“Look!” JD shrieked.

Tanner startled then looked to see what was wrong. He cried out as he saw that his guardian, lying sprawled out on his back, had begun to vomit. “C’mon JD, y’ gotta help me!” Grabbing hold of the younger child’s arm, the slender little blond pulled him along, despite his cousin’s cries of protest. They knelt beside the insensate man, who continued to gag and retch. Together they managed to push, pull and shove him onto his side.

“Ew!” The smaller boy held up a little, gore-covered hand. “Viiiiiiii-iiiiiin!”

“Jist wipe ‘t off on th’ grass,” the older boy admonished as he leapt to his feet. He didn’t have time to deal with his cousin’s squeamishness. Chris had to be his top priority right now. Jogging toward the packhorse, he studied the best way to proceed. Finally he settled on untying the rope binding the gear they had brought along, and tugged at the canvas covering. It all slid toward him, the blond barely getting out of the way as it all came crashing down. Some of the things scattered across the ground, but most of it stayed inside the canvas.

The action startled the already skittish animals. Vin could only stand by helplessly and watch as they bolted and dashed away. Heaving a trembling sigh, the child dropped to his knees and began gathering up some of the articles. He began moving them closer to where Larabee lay. He hadn’t turned from his side, thankfully, and the awful gurgling and retching sounds had ended. Only now the injured man lay frighteningly still.

JD was busily wiping his hand on the grass, disgusted sounds accompanying his almost frantic actions. He looked up at his older cousin and in a plaintive voice protested, “It’s still on there!”

Huffing an impatient breath young Tanner said, “go over to th’ crick an’ wash yer hands then.” Retrieving a large square of cloth he thrust it at the younger boy. “Git this wet, too. An’ hurry up, ‘cause I need you t’ help me.”

Stealing a glance at the bloodied figure on the ground, JD bit his bottom lip to stop its quivering. Turning tear-filled eyes toward his cousin, he simply nodded and took the cloth before running toward the nearby creek as fast as his little legs could take him.

Dropping to his knees beside the rancher, Vin took another cloth and began to wipe away the mess that covered the unconscious man’s face. He had no idea of what to do, but knew that he had to do something. He couldn’t just sit there, because then Chris could very well –

No. He refused to think of the bad things that could happen. He would just concentrate on doing what he could to help the injured man. He always paid close attention to what Nathan Jackson did when the healer cared for someone. He just had to remember what he did, and figure out how to use that to help Chris.


Young Tanner’s face filled with hope as he looked to see if the blond had come too. The man’s eyes were still closed, though, and he realized that the voice belonged to his cousin. Turning toward the voice, he found JD standing there, holding a dripping wet piece of cloth. “Sheesh, y’ could at least wring ‘t out!”

“I did!” The little brunet argued even as the wet cloth was pulled from his hands.

Vin squeezed the excess water out and began to wipe away the blood from the ashen features. He found a cut up near Larabee’s hairline, but it was just a little one. He kept looking for other tears in the man’s flesh that would account for all the blood that had poured fourth. He had wiped away as much of the blood as possible and still found no other injury. The cut was still bleeding freely though; he knew he would have to get it to stop. Finding another square of cloth, he pressed it against the little wound.

Wha’cha want me to do now?” Little Dunne asked quietly.

Thinking for a minute, the little blond said, “come push down on this cloth, we’ve gotta make th’ bleedin’ stop.” He guided the smaller boy’s hands and showed him how to keep pressure on the wound before he moved away.

Where you goin’?”

“I’ve gotta git th’ other stuff, JD, we gotta set up camp. Jist keep holdin’ that rag there, okay?”

“’Kay,” the smaller boy said in a trembling voice. He was more scared than he had been in a while. They were a long way from home, the horses were gone, and the only adult was lying there, unconscious and bloody. He didn’t understand where Buck was, but he wanted the man to come soon.

With a relieved smile, the child looked out across the prairie. A familiar figure on the back of an equally familiar white horse was just coming into view. With a squeal, young Dunne called out, “Vin! Look!”

Little Tanner looked up from where he was sorting through the supplies to see the man they had been waiting for. Leaping up, he started running toward the approaching figure. Over his shoulder he called out, “Don’t let go ‘a Chris!”

“But – “

“I’ll git Buck!” He kicked into high gear, sprinting across the ground as quick as he could move. He faltered as he realized that Wilmington was riding past, oblivious to the drama unfolding nearby. Barely slowing, he dashed back toward the trees.

“He don’t see us!” JD cried.

Without a word, Vin did something that he knew he would be in trouble for later. He pulled the Colt from Larabee’s holster. He had to hold the heavy weapon in both little hands as he carried it away from the others. Managing to cock the weapon, he pointed it upward and fired it into the air. The recoil shook him, nearly sending him to his rear. Staggering, he looked across the ground to see the big man reining his horse in. Dropping the gun to the ground, he started running toward the man, calling out, “Buck! Buck!”

Wilmington had heard the shot, watching for signs of an attack as he brought his horse to a stop. Pulling his sidearm, he held it at the ready as he quickly scanned the surrounding landscape. When his eyes fell on the tiny figure running full tilt in his direction, he cursed and re-holstered the gun. Slapping the reins, he spurred his horse forward, barreling across the landscape as he called out, “Vin!”

The big man pulled hard on the reins as soon as he got near the little boy. Leaping from the saddle, he dropped to his knees as the tiny blond plowed into him. He heard the great, gasping, sobbing breaths and felt the thin little body trembling hard. Wrapping big arms around the child protectively, he stroked the thick blond hair as he soothed, “It’s all right, Cowboy. Calm down now, and tell me what’s going on.”

“Ch-Chris! You gotta help him, Buck. I… I don’t know what t’ do an’ he’s talkin’ funny an’ he’s bleedin’… oh, Buck, there’s s-so much blood!”

Lifting the child into his arms, Wilmington climbed into the saddle and spurred the horse forward once more. They covered the ground quickly, reaching the trees even as he saw the prone form of his friend accompanied by the tiny, huddled figure of his Little Bit. Reining in, he dismounted, still holding onto the older boy.

“BUCK!” JD screamed the name, forgetting that he was supposed to keep pressure on the wound. He leapt up and stumbled toward the man, nearly falling over his own feet in his bid to get to the big brunet.

Reaching down, the brunet gathered up the smaller boy without breaking stride as he hurried toward his old friend. Depositing both boys nearby, he dropped to his knees beside the injured man. Gently shaking a shoulder, he called out, “Chris? C’mon pard, wake up.”

With a soft groan, Larabee’s eyes fluttered, the lids opening to a slit. Tongue running over his broad lips, the blond muttered, “B-Buck?’

“Yeah, it’s me.” As the eyes slid closed, he said, “No, now, c’mon. Open your eyes for me, stud.”

Responding to the instructions, the blond managed to open his eyes once more. They were glassy and unfocused, the blackness of the pupil filling far too much of the surface. He moaned again. “H-head… head hurts.”

“Imagine it does,” Wilmington agreed. Even with Vin’s diligent efforts, there was still far too much blood evident. He carefully searched the man for injuries and, just as the little boy had, he found only a small, single cut. He knew from experience, though, that head wounds bled a lot. While it was a concern, he was more worried about the man’s behavior. Between what he was seeing and what the seven-year-old described, he knew that something had given the blond a bad blow to the head. He was even more concerned that besides the cut, there were bruises forming on both sides of his face. Those on the side where the cut was were high up while those on the other side of his face were gathered along the lower portion of his face. He’d been hit there hard enough to cause some swelling, too.

“You boys know what happened?” Buck asked as he sorted through the things spread out nearby. When he received no immediate answer he looked up to see Vin staring at the ground with an almost frightened expression on his little face. “You’re not in trouble, son, but I need to know what happened.”

“Dunno. Me ‘n JD was gittin’ firewood an’ all of a sudden we heard a noise,” Young Tanner explained. “All we seen was Chris layin’ on th’ ground and… and Peso runnin’ off.”

“What about Pony?”

“I pulled th’ pack off ‘a Rosie an’… I scared her an’ Pony both. They run off an’ I’m real sorry, I never meant t’ scare ‘em but now they’re gone an’ we ain’t got but one horse an’ Chris’ hurt an – “

“Calm down, Pard, calm down.” Wilmington soothed. “Vin, none of this is your fault, so don’t get yourself all worked up.”

“But, Peso – “

“Peso probably had a good reason to bolt like that. He may be a cantankerous critter, but it sounds like this time somethin’ spooked him, sounds like it got the other two worked up, too. Now, stop your worryin’ and help me get Chris fixed up. All right?”

“All right,” the diminutive blond agreed.

Together, they tended Larabee’s injuries and set up camp. They settled the blond into Buck’s bedroll, propping him up so that he wouldn’t choke if he got sick again. Wilmington dug into his saddlebags and found a packet of herbs that Nathan had given him for a headache a couple of weeks ago. Heating up some water, he poured in the herbs and left them to steep. He wasn’t certain how much it would help the injured man, but it was all they had for now.


The tall brunet looked to see the younger of the two boys looking at him with a forlorn expression. “What is it, Little Bit?”

“I’m hungry, “ The little boy said apologetically. “I know you’ve gotta take care ‘a Chris an’ all, but… well, we ain’t had nothin’ since break’as’.”

Smiling, the big brunet dug into his saddlebags once more, coming up with a carefully wrapped bundle. Unwrapping it, he retrieved two oatmeal cookies. “Well, I was saving these for you boys to have for dessert, but how about we have dessert first?”

JD grinned, taking one of the offered treats. “Thank you!”

Vin simply stood there, staring at the cookie. Hesitantly he reached out and took the second cookie. Glancing at the now empty cloth, he said, “What about you?”

“Oh, I had a couple earlier. I saved these special for you boys.”

Nodding, little Tanner’s gaze went to where the injured man lay. “What about Chris? He might want a cookie, an’ Miz Potter says treats is good fer people who’re ailin’. She says it helps t’ make ‘em feel better.”

“Well, that’s true,” Buck replied, swallowing hard as he regarded the compassion of the willingness to share in the child who had had so little in his life. “But he ain’t gonna be up to enjoyin’ treats for a few days. How about you eat the cookie and we’ll get him a piece of Mrs. Potter’s sweet potato pie when he’s feelin’ better?”

Considering the proposal, the little boy finally nodded and took a bite of the cookie. He wasn’t certain if he could eat it or not. He’d had funny feelings in his stomach ever since seeing Chris lying on the ground, bloody and unconscious. But then the taste registered, and he couldn’t help but smile. “This is real good. Thank you fer gittin’ it fer me!”

“You’re very welcome, son,” the big man said gently before turning back to where his friend lay. He was surprised to see the blond’s eyes open. They were unfocused and glassy, but they were open. “Hey, stud. You with us?”

Slowly Larabee responded to the familiar voice. He found the shadowy form that some part of him knew to be his old friend. His tongue once more wetting his lips, he managed to croak, “Buck?”

“Yep, it’s me, pard. How’re ya feelin’?”

With a frown, he studied the question. After a minute he rasped, “O… kay.”

“Well, I doubt that,” Wilmington said with a snort. “Do you know where you are?”

“Laying… down?”

“Well, I reckon that’ll do. Can you tell me your name?”


“Yeah… tell me your name.”

“Lar… bee… Chris… Chris Lar’bee,” he answered.

“Good, what – “


The blond jerked at the high pitched cry, gasping and then groaning at the pain both the voice and his movement brought. He managed to draw a breath just as a small form dropped down beside him. With what concentration he possessed at the moment, he focused and recognized the figure as his little ward. “Vin?”

“Settle down now, he doesn’t need you hootin’ and hollerin’,” Buck admonished gently.

The bright smile faded and the big blue eyes filled with tears. “I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean too – “

“S’okay, pard,” Larabee said gently. He lifted one trembling hand and reached out to the child. When he felt one narrow little hand touch his palm, he closed his fingers around it. With a smile, he sighed contentedly and slipped back toward sleep.

Vin looked up at the big brunet with a puzzled expression on his face. He wasn’t certain of what to do next.

Reaching out to ruffle the thick blond hair, the big brunet said, “You wanted him to feel better. Don’t think there’s any medicine in the world better than knowing you’re beside him.”


Buck stared into the pot as he stirred the trail stew he’d put together for a late lunch. While he watched the mixture of meat and vegetables, his mind was elsewhere. They were several miles from the ranch or the little town of Four Corners. There were four of them and one horse. Chris had yet to be able to stay awake for more than a few minutes at a time; sometimes he seemed to know what was going on while at others he was confused.

If he rode hard he could be in town in a couple of hours, but that meant another two hours to get back. It would be dark before then, and he’d be leaving the two little boys alone to take care of the injured man.

He knew a little about head wounds and knew that Nathan could do little more for the blond then had already been done. Larabee would either get well… or he wouldn’t.

Deciding that the only thing they could do under the circumstances was to stay put until morning, Wilmington had the boys help him to finish setting up camp. Afterwards, seeing the fishing poles, he had tried to get the children to take them to the creek and go fishing. Anything to get their minds off the situation. Vin refused to leave Larabee’s side, though. He sat there, stalwartly holding onto the big hand and patiently waiting for the man to wake up. JD spent the time wandering idly around the camp, lost as to what to do with himself.

As evening approached, the blond roused. Green-hazel eyes stared in confusion toward the sky above. Slowly he registered the fact that someone was nearby, and the slight weight of a little hand nestled in his palm. With studied movements he turned his head, searching for his companion. In a hoarse whisper he said, “Vin?”

The tousled blond head snapped up, huge blue eyes brightening as he realized that the rancher was actually looking at, and recognizing him. Several times during the afternoon he had been disappointed when Larabee hadn’t recognized him. “Chris?”

“Hey, Cowboy, I… oooooh,” He grimaced as pain shot through his head. Unknowingly, he squeezed the boy’s hand hard.

Holding back a cry of pain as the strong fingers wrapped tighter around his hand, the tiny Texan called out, “Buck!”

In an instant the big man was there, kneeling beside his old friend. Immediately seeing what the pain-wracked man was doing, he reached to unclench the big hand. As soon as he unwrapped the grasping digits from the child’s hand, he watched as Vin rubbed the reddened flesh and then quickly placed both hands on the blond’s broad shoulder. Taking his attention from the seven-year-old, Wilmington said, “Chris? You with us?”

“Yeah… what hap… what happened?” Larabee asked. He transferred his grip to his old friend’s shirt sleeve. With another groan he muttered, “Hurt… head hurts.”

Nodding, the brunet said, “Not sure what happened, pard. Somethin’ spooked Peso evidently. The boys said they heard a commotion and found you on the ground and that big galoot packin’ the mail toward the hills.”

“Peso’s gone, an’ I’m glad.” Vin said in a quavering voice. “He didn’t have no call t’ hurt you, Chris an’… an’ I hope he don’t never come back.”

Even the semi-conscious blond could see the pain in the child’s face. Managing a wan smile, he said, “Wasn’t his… fault… Cowboy.” Forming even those few words with a bruised and swollen jaw seemed to exhaust the man, and he sank back against the saddle they had propped him up on.

Seeing his friend’s struggle, Buck took up the discussion. “Vin, I know you’re pretty upset at that horse of yours right now, but don’t let that anger lead you to wish for things that you can’t take back.”

“Don’t wanna take ‘t back,” the little blond said obstinately. “He hurt Chris an’ I don’t wanna ever see ‘im again. He hurt Chris an’ I didn’t know what t’ do, an’ I was scared an’ there was so much blood an’ then y’ started throwin’ up an’ I didn’t know what t’ do an’ then y’ talked funny an… an’ I jist didn’t know what t’ do!” He ended with a sob, dropping to curl against the broad chest.

Wrapping an arm around the tiny, trembling body, Larabee did what he could to comfort the child. He tried to make sense of the uncharacteristically rambling speech.

When the sobs quieted, Buck spoke to the injured man. “You should have seen them; you’d have been real proud. By the time I got here, they’d gotten you cleaned up and they were stoppin’ the place on your head from bleedin’.”

JD had come up while the Wilmington was filling his friend in. He unceremoniously climbed onto the big man’s back and wrapped his arms around the thick neck. Looking over the broad shoulder at the prone form, he said, “I gotted icky stuff on my hand, too, an’ I had to go wash it off in the creek then I hadda hold a rag real tight on your head cause you was bleedin’ somethin’ awful.”

“JD,” Vin hissed.

Deciphering the high speed speech, Larabee gave the little brunet a chagrined look. “Sorry, Little Bit.”

With a bright smile, the child replied, “That’s okay. You didn’t mean it.”

With a chuckle, Buck continued, “They were even workin’ on settin’ up camp. Then when Vin saw I didn’t see y’all, he… well, he shot off your Colt to get my attention and came runnin’ after me.”

Vin cringed when he heard the word ‘colt’. He knew he was in trouble now. But then, to his surprise, he felt a big hand stroking through his hair.

“I’m sorry you… had to use the… gun, pard,” Larabee said, feeling the child’s tension and guessing its source. “Buck’s… right. I am… proud. Awful…. proud… of both of… you.” With that he once more drifted off to sleep, his hand slowly sliding down to rest on the narrow little back.


It was a long, restless night. Vin refused to be separated from the blond, finally succumbing to an exhausted sleep curled up beside Chris. JD curled up beside Buck, snoring softly, wrapped in the depths of the big man’s plainsman. On his part, the big man spent the lengthy hours watching over his friend and the little boys.

As dawn made itself known by spreading a gray cloak over the horizon, Wilmington fed the fire and fixed an impromptu breakfast of cornbread and dried beef. Putting on some coffee, he roused the boys and sent them off to wash up in the creek. Keeping an eye on them, he moved to wake the injured rancher.

Gently shaking one of Larabee’s shoulders, he called softly, “Chris? Time to wake up, ol’ son.”

Slowly the blond’s eyes opened. “Buck?”

Smiling when he saw that the man’s eyes were much more clear than they had been the night before, the bigger man said, ”Mornin’. How you feelin’?”

Pale brows knitting together, the injured rancher considered the question. After a full minute of consideration he rasped out, “Better than last time I woke up.”

“Gotta say you look better, too, not near as bad as – “

“Chris? CHRIS!” The two men were interrupted by the gleeful shout of the older of the two orphans.

Larabee rolled his head slowly to the side, locating the tiny blond. He grinned at the sight of the seven-year-old sprinting toward him. “Hey, cowboy.”

Dropping to his knees beside the reclining man, young Tanner reached out and laid a hand on the man’s stubbled cheek as he asked, “Are you feelin’ better?”

Taking the little hand in his, Chris held it against his chest. “A lot better, pard, thanks to you.”

“Thanks to me?”

“Yeah, thanks to you. You know why?” When the little boy shook his head, he added, “Because every time I woke up, you were with me. And that made me feel better than any medicine ever could.”

Vin ducked his head, a shy smile lighting his face. In a whisper, he said, “it did?”

Reaching out to stroke his fingers through the mussed blond locks, Larabee said, “Yeah, it did.”


With his friend’s help, Chris was able to manage some breakfast and took a short walk to answer the call of nature. With only a single horse, there was very little choice in getting home. Larabee was helped into the saddle, settling astride Wilmington’s horse, Beau. The big brunet lifted Vin onto his horse as well, placing him in front of the injured man.

Handing young Tanner the reins, Buck said, “You’re in charge, pard. And if you think Chris needs some rest, just sing out, all right?”

“Yes, sir,” the child said solemnly.

Hoisting JD onto his shoulders, the mustached rancher said, “Well, all righty then, let’s head home.

They moved slowly along the road, Vin keeping the horse to a walk. He was well aware of the lean body behind him, and frequently tilted his head back to check on his guardian. Whenever the tall man seemed to be struggling, the child called a halt. Not listening to the barely audible protests, they would help Larabee to the ground and coax him to rest a few minutes beneath a tree or in other shade.

The quartet was almost half way home when they spotted a group of familiar horses and riders. A short time later they greeted Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish. Neither of the adults could miss the relieved sigh from the little blond orphan when he saw that they were leading Pony, Rosie the pack horse and Peso. Evidently the fractious gelding had been forgiven.

Jackson regarded the bruises on the tall blond’s face. Shaking his head, he groused, “You can find trouble anywhere, can’t you?”

With a wan smile, Larabee managed to reply, “Evidently.”

“I came out this morning to pay a visit and found your livestock meandering around the yard. Figured you’d run into some trouble, “ Sanchez explained.

“Glad you did, ‘cause I am real tired of walkin’,” Buck said, only half joking.

“Me, too!” JD chimed in from his perch on his guardian’s shoulders. Then he frowned at the laughter he received in reply.


Chris looked up at the sound of soft footsteps approaching. He smiled when he saw his little ward carrying two glasses of lemonade. “Hey, cowboy.”

“Buck made some linumade,” Vin announced as he handed one of the glasses to the man.

“Thanks.” Larabee nodded as he took a drink. Grimacing at the amount of sugar, he said, “You sure JD didn’t make this?”

Giggling, young Tanner settled on the porch with his own glass. “Buck said he made it sweet jist fer you… said it’d help yer… dip… disp… dis’pition.”

Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Chris said, “He did, did he?”

Vin nodded his head, but when he spoke, his tone was serious. “Are you feelin’ better?”

The rancher felt a pang of guilt at that question. They had been home for two days, and the little boy asked him the same question time and time again. He had even awakened in the middle of the night to find a pair of concerned blue eyes watching him from the shadows. Not even Nathan’s guarantee that Larabee’s injuries weren’t life-threatening could bring the right amount of comfort to the child. Even though he was recovering very well from the accident, his young ward was still concerned. He knew that Vin was still upset about the entire incident and, despite several talks, the boy still insisted that he should have been able to do something to keep it from happening.

“I’m feeling a lot better.”

Young Tanner regarded the big man. Bruises covered most of his face, black blue, purple and red mottling his flesh. His jaw was sore and, although Nathan said nothing was broken, he still couldn’t eat or talk much. Vin knew he was having bad headaches; even his seven-year-old mind registered the pinched look and pale features.

“Cowboy, you know I am okay, right?” He received a nod in return. “Do you believe me?” Another nod. “Good. Now, I want you to believe something else, too. I want you to believe that you did a great job in helping me after I got hurt. I need you to know, son, that I am very… very proud of you.”

“But… I…” young Tanner stammered. “I used yer gun. I know I ain’t s’posed t’ touch yer gun ‘til y’ say I’m old enough, Chris. S’jist…”

“It’s just that you didn’t know of any other way to get Buck’s attention,” Larabee stated. When the child acknowledged the statement with a nod, he continued. “I know you realize that under normal circumstances you’re never to touch my gun. I also know that you realized then that you didn’t have any other choice.”

“I couldn’t find no other way t’ git him t’ see us,” the child agreed.

Larabee sat aside the glass and motioned the child to him. When the child approached he lifted the thin body onto his lap. Looking into the far-too-old eyes, the tall blond said, “Sometimes we have to do things that we wouldn’t normally do, Vin. Sometimes we have to because we have no other choice. You didn’t have a choice out there, cowboy, there was only one thing you could do. And you did it. I’m very, very proud of you, pard.”

Looking down at the porch floor beneath them, the diminutive blond couldn’t help but blush.

“Of course,” Chris said in a wicked tone, “I do have to punish you for using the Colt.”

The child’s head shot up, his eyes and mouth opened wide in shock. Then he marshaled his emotions and nodded, dropping his head so that his chin rested on his tiny chest.

“Yeah, gotta think of a fine punishment. I’m thinking you have to drink the rest of my lemonade. And then you and I will go for a little ride into town to see if maybe Mrs. Potter’s made any sweet potato pie.” He paused to see the light returning to the finely chiseled features of the little face.

Pretending to study this ‘punishment’ he nodded. Then, grasping the child he began to tickle him. “Yeah, I think that’s just the punishment for you.”

The air came alive with the sound of childish laughter.

The End